War Child Youth Conference: Addressing Violence and Enhancing Well-being
In this blog, Eamonn Hanson from WarChild sheds light on the WarChild Youth Conference held this month in Uganda. The conference bought young people together from five African countries to share their stories and experiences through a series of arts and performance-based activities and highlighted the need for more youth involvement in programs addressing community well-being in conflict settings.
Children and youth growing up in areas affected by conflict frequently witness violence in their communities - violence that seriously impacts upon their lives. These young people should be key partners in formulating responses that could serve to improve their wellbeing - but all too often their views are ignored.
War Child believes this needs to change - which is why we convened a Youth Conference this month on 1-3 October in Kampala, Uganda. The young people (see photo) were supported ahead of the conference through a series of focus group discussions on violence and its impact on mental health and wellbeing. The participants were predominantly selected from communities where War Child and its partner organisations work. The event saw young people from five conflict-affected African countries - Central African Republic, DR Congo, South Sudan, Burundi and Uganda - tell their stories and share experiences through imagery, theatre plays and debates. In addition, young people from four countries outside Africa - Sri Lanka, Netherlands, Colombia and Lebanon - also contributed to the conference via Skype.
In total, the event saw youth from nine countries speak out on issues affecting their lives and the forms of psychosocial support they believe will contribute to their improved future prospects.
The findings from the conference will be used to inform War Child’s programmes and shared in international advocacy networks. The conference served as an advocacy event with the aim of developing messages to target government stakeholders and donors. The process of developing messages was supported by input from Nathalie Olijslager - Deputy Representative of the Netherlands to the UN in Geneva.
Further support was provided by War Child project manager Karen Villada, who discussed issues surrounding urban violence and War Child’s ‘Peace Bicycles’ project, which supports youth to strengthen their resilience against the recruitment tactics of gangs and acquire peaceful conflict resolution skills.
The event also saw War Child project manager Jessica Hallak provide information about War Child’s youth programmes in Lebanon that use football as a means to promote community cohesion. War Child project coordinator Peter Majok gave a presentation on our work to set up safe spaces for children in South Sudan, where they can take part in our psychosocial intervention programme The DEALS. The event closed with a presentation from youth advocacy and participation expert Sophie Bray-Watkins.
Sexual violence and abuse
Almost all participants agreed that sexual violence and abuse was common in all of their country contexts - but it became clear that these threats manifest themselves in different and frequently extreme ways. Rape for example can occur in different ways - it can be committed by several men, soldiers, criminals and family members. Sexual abuse experienced by teenage girls is frequently inconspicuous due to early marriage or sex work.
"Displaced orphans, refugee children and unaccompanied minors are at the greatest risk of being exploited - and perpetrators are frequently not held accountable, due to the absence of legal safeguards or failing justice systems"
- Youth Participant
The socioeconomic, mental and physical health problems associated with rape include teenage pregnancy, HIV/STD infection, school dropout, stigma and exclusion. The youth at the conference recommended that adequate social and psychological support to victims of sexual violence should be made readily available by making key community influencers aware of the issue - and that police and other authorities should be better trained and equipped to deal with this sensitive crime.
Refugees, forced migrants and displaced
Young people living in conflict-affected areas are also exposed to the extreme vulnerability associated with forced migration. Orphans as young as two years old can fall victim to trafficking, disease, malnutrition and neglect. This changed context also sees older children, teenagers and young adults face difficulties such as access to education, health care or the job market. Ultimately these stressors affect the wellbeing of youth and their caregivers, leading to negative health outcomes like depression and anxiety.
The vulnerability arising from forced migration is particularly difficult for children and young people with a mental or physical impairment (e.g. children with a visual handicap, down-syndrome or polio). First responders to a crisis should pay particular attention to this neglected and easily overseen group by ensuring their inclusion in programmes.
The youth at the conference also identified the importance of educating parents and caregivers about the dangers and disadvantages of withholding services from children and young people. It was also found that local authorities tend to allocate resources to local populations - meaning little or no resources are left for refugees. Traditional beliefs and practices that serve to withhold education from girls - as well as harmful practices like female circumcision and child labour - could be addressed through information campaigns. The youth also expressed the opinion that donor agencies or national governments should put mechanisms in place to identify and act on corruption or malpractices.
Another important topic discussed at the conference was youth suicide. One participant told a story about his brother, who was expelled from school because his school fees were not paid. Upon arriving home the boy explained the situation to his father, who ignored the problem. That same evening he took his own life.
The youth present discussed youth suicide, situations that could lead to contemplating suicide and ideas of how to tackle these issues. Typical issues identified as triggers included poverty, the loss of a job and/or substance use and abuse. The young people themselves should be made aware that suicide is not the solution to life challenges and that alternatives to problems can be found. This could be achieved by asking influential civil society partners (like War Child) to advocate in support of community information campaigns addressing the issue. For example, partners should be encouraged to share their financial challenges with the entire family, informing and involving them in problem solving.
The aim of the conference was to develop messages about the impact of violence on the wellbeing of children and youth affected by conflict. The conference participants produced messages that will be form the basis of a booklet for further distribution in communities and external stakeholders. In December a follow-up online session will be held with the conference participants to share all end-products and exchange further ideas for the dissemination of the conference messages.
An evaluation of the conference by the participants showed that the average self-reported progress to achieving their personal goals during the conference was 83%. This data supports our belief that the conference was a great success - which is why we intend to hold a second event in the Middle East next year. The 2019 event will involve a larger number of decision-makers including local government officials, community stakeholders and members of the UN Committee of the Rights of the Child.
Photo Credit: © War Child Holland